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Editorial & Opinion

On the intersection of race and transportation



So how do we keep people safe from traffic violence AND safe from police violence? This is where community vision, imagination, and creativity comes in. If we want to defund the police, we have to drastically transform our streets. We can absolutely do this with smart design and engineering that will prevent crashes before they happen.

Whether crossing a border or a street, both individual and collective mobility are directly tied to liberation and justice. From the famed Montgomery bus boycotts to Boston’s People Before Highways movement, transportation has long been a central element in the broader fight for racial justice, and it is past time that anti-racism be placed at the heart of transportation. Like housing and education, transportation policy has always had a divisive and destructive role in land use and city development patterns. Dividing cities based on race is entrenched in our national and local history, and city planners, elected leaders, and powerful decision makers consistently use highways and arterials to cement those divisions. 

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 financially incentivized states to demolish urban communities of color in order to build fast roads for white suburban commuters. In a 2008 report for Harvard Law & Policy Review, current Central Falls City Solicitor Matt Jerzyk wrote, “The construction or rerouting of interstate highways such as I-95, Route 6, and Route 10 divided the traditionally wealthy East Side and downtown from the rest of the city, and split the city’s dense neighborhoods in the Southside and West End. Provoking charges of racism, the traditionally African-American East Side neighborhood of Lippitt Hill was razed and replaced by the [car-centered] University Heights shopping mall.” The nonprofit Stages of Freedom’s Lippit Hill Project created an oral history of the neighborhood where more than 5,000 Black residents, businesses, and religious institutions were displaced – it is highly worth reading.

Recognizing the wrongs of the past, under the Obama administration the United States Department of Transportation (US DOT) began speaking out on its mistakes. “The highway interstate system and program was started in the 1950s,” said former US DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx in 2016. “This was prior to things like the voting rights act and so everyone was not at the table and a lot of the early decision-making laid out alignments and designs that ran through low income communities. And as a result of that, we now live with a system that has, in some case, bifurcated neighborhoods, in some cases, put a constraint on the ability of some areas to be as economically healthy and as strong as they possibly can be. So this is a challenge that we live with to this day. The good news is that we are at a point where a lot of this infrastructure is aging and we’ll either have to repair or replace it. And so we need to be thoughtful about how we do that.”

Rhode Island had exactly this chance just a couple years ago when community advocates proposed to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) that a boulevard design replace the hulking system of highway on– and off–ramps that divide Olneyville and the West End. RIDOT rejected the proposal. Construction on the new 6/10, which will include pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure but is definitely still a highway, is currently underway. 

It’s not only infrastructure decisions that perpetuate racial injustice today in Rhode Island. Our Black neighbors are fed into the criminal justice system by traffic stops which disproportionately impact them.

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In 2018, as a result of the passing of the Providence Community-Police Relations Act (known to community members as the Community Safety Act), the Institute for Municipal & Regional Policy (IMRP) of Central Connecticut State University published a study analyzing all of the Providence Police Department’s 2016 traffic stops. They found that of nearly 10,000 traffic stops, Black drivers in Providence were stopped in greater proportion than the local Black population in all of the city’s nine police patrol districts. They also found that 53% of all equipment or inspection-related traffic stops took place in the three patrol districts with the highest concentration of people of color, while white residents were more likely to be stopped for a substantive reason, like hazardous driving. 

A recent Vice article titled “We Don’t Need Cops to Enforce Traffic Laws” argues, “Any effort to eliminate racism in American policing has to figure out what to do about traffic enforcement, which is the leading cause of interactions between police and the public. By law, it’s almost entirely up to the officer whether to let the person go with a warning, give them a ticket, ask to search their vehicle, or escalate the situation even further. It is an interaction intentionally designed to let the officer do virtually whatever he or she wants, reflecting the inherent biases of our legal system.”

The article goes on to ask that communities seeking to defund and unbundle their police departments instead rely more on redesigning their roads for slower speeds, and on automated systems (cameras) to do enforcement – which, while not perfect, aren’t racist and don’t carry guns. With cameras, white folks like me can’t use our privilege to argue our way out of tickets with a smile while our Black and Brown neighbors get searched and threatened. And there are ways of making them more equitable. In Finland, speeding tickets are based on income – not a flat fee. 

Cameras and speeding tickets are ubiquitously unpopular, but the reality is that speeding kills. Every year for the past decade, on average, over 150 people walking and over 60 people riding bicycles were hit by cars in Providence. Speed determines whether or not a collision is fatal: a person is about 70 percent more likely to be killed if they’re struck by a vehicle traveling at 30 miles per hour versus 25 (the citywide speed limit in Providence). Because walking and biking are essentially free forms of transportation, residents of Providence’s lower income neighborhoods rely heavily on them; yet these same neighborhoods are often the least safe when it comes to collisions. For example, Broad Street has the highest crash rate in Providence.

What’s more, despite fewer cars on the road during COVID-19, speeding and traffic deaths have increased, including in Connecticut and Massachusetts

So how do we keep people safe from traffic violence AND safe from police violence? This is where community vision, imagination, and creativity comes in. If we want to defund the police, we have to drastically transform our streets. We can absolutely do this with smart design and engineering that will prevent crashes before they happen. But it must go further than that and there are still a lot of questions. Minneapolis is already coming up with some answers. So are Berkeley and Los Angeles. I don’t pretend to know what will work best for our community, but am here to listen to my friends, neighbors, and leaders in Providence. Let’s talk. 

This week, the Providence Streets Coalition launched a creative campaign in support of the City’s proposed 75-mile Urban Trail Network, which seeks to reconnect divided neighborhoods and reduce speeding while making affordable and accessible transportation choices safer and easier for people of all ages and abilities. I see this as one part of the struggle for safety and equity on our streets – but know the work must go beyond infrastructure. The violence of police departments across the country against Black lives, people of color, and protestors makes our streets and public spaces unsafe.

It’s never been clearer that today, as throughout American history, not everyone gets to have equal freedom of movement.

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